Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: April 2015

The Religion with Homework

“Asatru is the religion with homework” is a common enough saying in the broader contemporary Asatru community. The expectation is that every Asatruar should be at least conversant in Old Norse, have read the Eddas and as many Icelandic Sagas as possible, and be constantly reading scholarly works on archaeology, philology, history, linguistics, anthropology, and the like. Comparisons of dusty treatises from the 19th century with the latest scholarship are to be regarded as de rigeur. It is thought that it’s not enough to simply live as an Asatruar and worship the Gods, and those who are not constantly acting like a PhD student are somehow shirking their obligation.

Speaking as someone who does love that level of scholarly work, I have come to the opinion that this is bunk.

To be sure, there is a place for scholarship, and for those who are so inclined, such scholarly pursuits are worthwhile and admirable. However, for the vast majority of Asatruar, it is simply not necessary to engage in that level of scholarship. As long as there are reputable contemporary works that distill down all the high-end scholarship into easy-to-digest books, that should be enough for the vast majority of Asatruar out there.

Think of it this way – are Christians expected to learn Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew? Do they really pick and choose a church based on its adherence to the 1913 Kansas City Statement of Faith vs. its adherence to the 1927 Evangelical Catechism? Would they even know the difference? Or do they choose a church based on the people that belong to it? Do they study books of religious philosophy from the 19th century? A few do, sure. But the vast majority don’t. They have their Bible, which they might read, and they have what they learn from sermons when they go to church, and maybe a couple of popularly-written books that explain Christian thought on a particular topic from a particular point of view.

And that’s okay. Everyone doesn’t have to be a scholar.

No real Asatruar would skip this book…

That’s not to say there cannot be discernment in sources, even when they’re written in a popular style that doesn’t have a list of sources and footnotes half again as long as the book itself. Even if not everyone is a scholar, those who do prefer a scholarly approach will have opinions about such books, and will write reviews, which others can then use to form their own opinions about whether such-and-such is a book worth reading.

The scholarly ideas within Heathenry wouldn’t go away — far from it. But they wouldn’t be expected to be at the forefront of every discussion about practicalities in Asatru, and those who didn’t have a relevant quote in Old High German on every subject wouldn’t be implicitly looked down on in some circles. There would still be scholarly books published for those who were so inclined, but popular ones too, that wouldn’t be looked down on for a paucity of footnotes.

For myself, I’m writing my own “Beginner’s Book” for Asatru. What I think I’ll do is actually release it in two editions; a Popular Version, which just has the essence of the beliefs and practice of Asatru laid out, with a very small and easily-approachable list of further reading for those who are so inclined. There will also be an Annotated Version, with exactly the same material, except with all the footnotes, citations from the original languages, list of scholarly works cited and so forth. I have a shrewd idea which one will sell better…

St. Stephen and Freyr

It’s well-known that certain Celtic deities were imported nearly wholesale into the Christian pantheon of Saints, with the most obvious example being the Celtic goddess Brigid, who is now known as St. Brigid. However, there are also similar correspondences with Germanic deities. One such is St. Stephen, known from the New Testament as the first martyr (or proto-martyr, since his death came before Christianity was founded, as such; see Acts 6-7). Some sources report an 11th century missionary named Staffan, with whom the Biblical figure may have been conflated. I first became aware of this saint, and his possible connections with the Norse god Freyr, in Pamela Berger’s The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint, pp 110-112, although she goes further and conflates him with the goddess Freyja, which doesn’t seem all that justified (or necessary).

What’s intriguing is that when the North began to be converted, and the saints of Christianity began to enter the public consciousness, they were mapped onto pre-existing Heathen religious and folk-customs. In the case of St. Stephen, this mapping occurred due to the proximity of his feast-day (December 26th, known as Boxing Day in England) with the Heathen Yule (ON Jól) celebration, which was held around the winter solstice.

The winter solstice celebration was associated with the god Freyr. According to Ynglinga Saga (ch. 8), the mid-winter, or Yule, sacrifice was made “for a good crop”:

Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.

On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle.

While Gylfaginning (ch. 24) makes it plain that it is in fact Freyr to whom such supplications for good harvests were made:

Freyr er inn ágætasti af ásum. Hann ræðr fyrir regni ok skini sólar ok þar með ávexti jarðar, ok á hann er gott at heita til árs ok friðar. Hann ræðr ok fésælu manna. 

Freyr is the most renowned of the Æsir; he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men. 

The association of the boar with both Freyr and Yule is well-known. Freyr is said to ride a golden-haired boar, named gullinbursti, and feasts of pork around the solstice (originally associated with Yule, and transferred to the new Christmas holiday) were traditional well into the Christian era. In modern Sweden, boar-shaped cakes are a traditional Christmas dish. Even as late as the 18th century, December 17th was called Sow Day in the Orkneys, and the best sow of the herd would be slaughtered, obviously a hold-over from the ancient Yuletide boar sacrifice to Freyr, as described in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (ch. 10):

Ok skyldi þeim gelti blóta at sónarblóti. Jólaaptan skyldi leiða sónargöltinn í höll fyrir konúng; lögðu menn þá hendr yfir burst hans ok strengja heit.

And they would sacrifice a boar in the sonarblót. On Yule Eve the sonar-boar was led into the hall before the king; then people laid their hands on its bristles and made vows.

In addition, there are connections between Freyr and horses. Hrafnkel’s Saga tells of a horse, Freyfaxi, that was declared sacred to the god, and which it was forbidden to ride. Skírnir took Freyr’s horse, Blóðughófi, with him to woo the giantess Gerd, and there is some hint of an association with Freyr and the Scandinavian custom of horse-fighting.

Now, the association of St. Stephen with these traditions becomes apparent when we see the differences in how the saint appears in the North, compared to the Mediterranean world of his origin. In the Biblical account, Stephen is a deacon, but in the folk-tales told about him in the Scandinavian nations, he is a stable groom, indicating the association with horses (no such horse associations seem to be native to the Biblical character).

One such tale even specifically states that Stephen was bringing in a boar’s head for Herod’s Yule feast immediately before his untimely demise. The scene is not only recounted in several ballads of the period, but also on the baptismal font at Stänge. (The folktale version of the story also involves a cooked cock coming back to life to announce the divinity of Jesus.) In England, St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses, also echoing the association of Freyr with horses, and an English folk-ballad about Stephen reinforces his connection with the boar’s head feast of Yule/Christmas:

“Stephen out of kitchen came,
With boarës head on hand,
He saw a star was fair and bright
Over Bethlehem stand.”

So on the one hand, we have the god Freyr, associated with a great Yuletide sacrifice and feast, associated with boars and horses. On the other hand, we have the “northern version” of St. Stephen, whose feast-day is during the Yuletide, and whose folk-tales are associated with boars and horses. It does seem to be a bit more than a coincidence, especially since the associations of Stephen with the boar and the horse are northern folkloric additions, and the proximity of his feast-day with the already-extant sacrificial feast in honor of Freyr gives a positive reason for the association.

In other words, when the Church imported their St. Stephen and imposed him on the peoples’ Yule celebration, the people in turn superimposed some of their own folk-beliefs about what the subject of the solstice feast should be like, and that is retained in the various folkloric associations.

On a practical level, I think this gives we modern Asatruar a potential source of color and customs for our own Yule celebrations. Some of the early modern customs associated with Stephen in the northern countries (but not the southern ones) come to mind, but there are doubtless others that are practiced on the saint’s feast-day in Scandinavia and England (and sometimes even as far south as central Europe) that do not exist in the Mediterranean nations, and thus might be survivals from pre-Christian times:

  • Horse racing, with the horses “decorated with many-colored ribbons”, possibly to a north-flowing stream, with the winner being given alcohol as a token of victory
  • Riding horses and making noise at night or in the morning, which stops only when the home owner gives a gift of alcohol, singing the Staffans Visa (see below) or some equivalent
  • Naming a child or young man “Freyr” for the day and having him riding either a real or hobby horse, and making him a living embodiment of the god for the day
  • Taking horses around the fields, to ensure their fecundity
  • Bringing sick animals, especially horses, to a holy spot sacred to Freyr, for healing
  • Paint or otherwise decorate children’s piggy banks with red, to bring prosperity in the coming year
  • Play bandy or other ice-related sports (a bandy match on this day is traditional in Sweden)
  • Bleeding of horses (presumably for their health) was also a custom on this day, but I would not recommend its revival, given modern veterinarian science has pretty well demolished whatever credibility this practice might have had 
Furthermore, the association of the holiday with the practice of guising (dressing up in animal disguises as a celebration of the New Year, which was specifically banned by the early church as they expanded their conquest of the North) seems obvious, but remains I think a topic for a separate discussion.
Additionally, there are a large number of customs associated with “Wren’s Day” on December 26th as well, but since there doesn’t seem to be any association with either Freyr or the biblical Stephen and the wren, it is possible that that is more a survival of some Celtic practice, and might yield fruit to those who are interested in that side of the aisle.

Yeah, I know it’s April, and it might seem weird posting something about Yule traditions, but the time to start thinking about this stuff is now, not two weeks before the actual holiday!

Gods of Place – Hraðrá

One of the conceits of polytheism in general is that the world is alive with spirits. In addition to the mighty gods and goddesses in Heaven (whether that be Asgard, or Olympus, or Swarga Loka or something else), there are a multitude of more local deities, linked to specific areas (or specific geographic features) who might also be approached for aid and to whom offerings may be made.

During the Migration Era, the cult of the Matronae was found on both sides of the Rhine, and often tied to the specific locale by the name given to the goddesses on their altar inscriptions. We also see references to practices involving worship of gods of springs, rocks, and trees in later Christian polemics, sermons, and manuals of penance, railing against these pagan holdover beliefs and practices.

Modern Asatru recognizes these beings as landvaettir, or land-spirits, in a generic sense, as well as the house-wight (tomten, nisse, or brownie) and these are attested to in the later written sources. It is sometimes the case that a given stone or tree or spring is said to be the home of a land-wight (such as the famous elf-stones in Iceland), but I find that modern Asatru rarely places these sorts of deities at the forefront of worship.

Here in the United States, it is easy to fall into what I call the Amerindian Trap. That is, the idea that because these lands were settled by Amerindians before they were settled by Europeans, that they somehow “own” the local land-spirits, and that the only way to approach them is to do so on Amerindian terms, with Amerindian rituals.

But the truth is different – those gods of place were here long before the Amerindians came here, and the arrival of Europeans didn’t displace them. Those Amerindians may have gotten to know the spirits better because of long association, but that hardly means we Europeans cannot get to know them, too, and honor them according to our own ancestral ways.

In my own case, I happen to live right next to a river that meanders around northwest New Jersey before emptying into the Delaware. Before this land was settled by Europeans (originally English, later Germans and still later Scandinavians), it was inhabited by the Lenape Indians. The name of the river is the Musconetcong, which in Munsee (the language of the Lenape in this area) means “swift river”. I’ve done some studying on the subject, and reached out to the remnants of the Lenape in Oklahoma, and listened to the goddess of the river herself.

I call her Hraðrá (Anglicized as Hratta), which means “swift river” in Old Norse. I have given her offerings of cakes, and ale, and lit candles in her honor. Mostly I just sit by the river and talk with her. Sometimes I will sing to her. On occasion she will appear as a white heron, and answers to questions can be read in the way she flies through the trees above the river.

Now, she’s not the only land-spirit around. Far from it, and I still make offerings “to the landvaettir” on a monthly basis. And I make offerings to the Aesir as well. And my ancestors. But there’s always Hraðrá there, too, the heron goddess of the swift river, who grows strong in the spring as the snow melts and the rain falls, and who brings life to the land, embracing the waterfowl, and fish, and frogs, and turtles, and freshwater clams that the raccoons eat at night, and the children who explore her banks and swim in her pools.

And I sing to her, and bring her cakes, as my Germanic ancestors did with the local goddesses in Europe according to their customs. And the goddess of the river doesn’t seem to mind that one bit.

Interview with Will DeVito, Builder of Hofs

Will DeVito is known to a lot of folks in the Asatru community, especially here in the northeastern US, and is an outspoken proponent of the folkish point of view. Colorful though he can be, he is also responsible, either partially or entirely, for the construction of no fewer than six hofs, or Asatru temples, in the New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania area. He is a leading member of the Church of Balder Rising, and leader of Balder Rising’s Breidablikk Kindred.

Especially given the international attention that the construction of the first Icelandic hof has received, the question of the importance (or lack thereof) of physical buildings and lands has been a topic of conversation in both the neopagan and Heathen communities lately.

Being a friend of Will’s for many years, and knowing of his background in the hof-building arena, I asked if I could get his thoughts on the subject, and learn some details about his history as a builder of hofs.

The photos accompanying this post are all of hofs that he participated in building. Photos are copyrighted by their owners and are used with permission.

Q: Describe the hof building projects you’ve been involved with. Where are they, who uses them, and how do they differ from one another?

A: The first hof I built was in 2006, in Hampton NJ.

The second was in 2009 in Clifton NJ.

The third was in 2012 in Clifton NJ.

The fourth was in 2013 in Slate Hill NY.

The fifth and sixth, I have started in Hawley PA and Narrowsburg NY.

The first was a breakthrough. It was the first building I built by myself. It was an oath I made in the traditions of old heathen practice,in honor of Allfather Odin. It was in the style of a mead hall/beer garden.  It was sizeable and could fit roughly 40 people comfortably sitting.

The second was also part of an oath. This hof was more in the style of a Ve, which is typically a small indoor or outdoor ritual space, meant for individual offerings to be made to specific Gods or Goddesses.

The third, in Clifton NJ also, was a narrow but high building, with 2 lofts for sleeping.  It was the most modern by far, and is insulated the best. It was built as a congregating area for tribal elders,and our warrior class, to hold meetings, and do private rituals to certain Gods and Goddesses.

Interior of the Slate Hill hof, finished and decorated

The fourth, in Slate Hill NY, was built with a friend, on his property, for the use of his tribe. His use was that of a combination between an indoor Ve, and a place of minor congregating and libations, honoring the Gods and Goddesses.

The two current halls are the largest I am building to date.  Both are great halls that will rival the sizes of some ancestral great halls,when they are finished. Both are on land of two different organizations,and will be used for everything aforementioned, as well as All Thing, banquets, holidays, and hospitality.

Q: What made you want to get involved with this particular aspect of modern Heathenry?

A:  I come from 2 long lines of builders on both sides of my family.

As heathens,we are judged by our deeds,by whom we are individually. We cement our legacy by our actions and works. One of the things I wish to be known as when I leave this world, is Hof builder.

Q: Is this part of an organized hof-building project, or is each hof a stand-alone project?

A: All my hofs already built, and currently under construction,are part of a bigger picture, and a greater motivation.

In America, we heathens have been building the faith, Asatru, into a revival for the better part of the last 40 years. Men like Stephen McNallen and Robert Taylor, amongst others,built the faith, and now we, in the new generations, must evolve the faith toward new goals. Our goals include founding landsteads, and building legal structures for religious and community use.

Q: Where does the funding and/or supplies come from?

A: We are a poor man’s religion,for the most part. Many materials are salvaged. Others are donated,and few men spend hard earned money into building what we have.

In 18 years of being Asatru,and 10 years of organized Asatru,I have spent roughly $20,000 American dollars to further this cause.  My kindred Chieftain, Robert Blumetti, has donated upwards of $50,000 American dollars.
But it is important to remember,money isn’t everything,it just makes things a lot easier,and makes them go quicker. People who cannot afford money, give time, effort, hard work, etc. To help us complete our goals.

Q: What do you think of the plans for the hof in Iceland that has received so much attention lately?

A: I think it’s great. I think it’s a good step in the right direction for not only the revival of our faith on a world scale, but the acknowledgement of it by the leaders of the world.

I just wish more would be done to tell the truth of our movement,and the truth that it has been rising for 40+ years, and rose because of left over remnants that never stopped believing in the Gods and Goddesses of our ancestors, all through time into the modern day.

The world should know that the Old Gods of Europe, never went away. They have always been within their children. No force on earth was great enough to suppress them into non existence.

We are back, and here to stay.

Q: The hof currently under construction in Pennsylvania looks like the largest one yet. How has that one differed from the others? Any particular challenges that you didn’t have to face in the earlier projects?

A: Well it’s our first established hof on kindred land,so everything had to be as perfect as possible, plus it’s the first we needed a permit for because of it’s size.

We installed a heavy duty pressure treated floor,and it’s raised on dry block, so there won’t be warping or bowing in the future.

Biggest challenge we didn’t have to face in the other halls, definitely had to do with the size of the roof. We wanted a hall with a high ceiling, so when large numbers of people are inside, it feels even bigger than it is.

The building is 16 feet high at the peak,which means a common man is basically looking 10 feet up to the ceiling. Gives you a different perspective when you enter a room with a really high ceiling. The atmosphere is fuller.

Plus what we place inside aesthetically,will be pleasing and give people a sense of wonderment when they enter and look up.  Especially children.  Something that sticks in your mind. Wood grain walls, candle lighting, shields on the walls, high shelves with bronze statues of deities all around. A mural, things that inspire the imagination.

Asatru Prisoner News: Sessing v. Beard (Update)

Back in January 2014, I reported on the case of Sessing v. Beard. It seems there has been some activity on the case. On March 30, a judge dismissed the third amended appeal with prejudice. This time the specific charge was that the plaintiff wasn’t given permission to construct an Asatru-only sacred space in the prison; apparently he wanted one that wasn’t shared with other faiths. Apparently, there’s already a Pagan outdoor worship area, and “the pagan grounds are available for use by “other religious groups,” including Asatruar/Odinists.”

Religious Rights vs. Gay Rights

As just about everyone by this time knows, Indiana and Arkansas recently passed versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which was originally acted into law on the federal level by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993. A number of states have similar statutes, and until now their enactment hasn’t been too controversial a proposition.

The current opposition to RFRA laws is rooted in the new perception that they are being enacted for the benefit of majoritarian religions (i.e., Christianity) so as to allow them to promote anti-homosexual discrimination. But that is not at all what RFRA laws do. Rather, they were (and are) enacted to protect the religious rights of minority religions from governmental overreach, such as:

  • Lipan Apache religious leader Robert Soto
  • Sikh federal employee Kawal Tagore
  • Santeria priest José Merced
  • Adriel Arocha, long-haired Native American kindergartner
  • Muslim prisoner Abdul Muhammad
  • O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (UDV), a Christian Spiritist sect with origins in the Amazon rain forest
  • Orthodox Jewish prisoner Bruce Rich

Hardly a list of typical supporters of Westboro Baptist.

Now, the kicker is that the RFRA bills as originally passed by Indiana and Arkansas wouldn’t have changed anything in those states regarding the ability to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. That’s because it was already legal to discriminate against gays in those states:

At most, all that RFRA does is to create an exemption from a legal duty for the religious objector. Neither Indiana nor Arkansas has a statewide public accommodation law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Since there is no requirement in either state’s law for bakeries or florists or caterers to treat same-sex couples equally in the first place, the religious objector does not need an exemption in order to refuse to provide goods or services for same-sex couples.

So much for RFRA being enacted as an excuse to discriminate. What RFRA laws do is say that the government cannot restrict religious activities without a “compelling interest” in doing so. How horrible!

The fact is that the Pagan and Heathen communities have a lot more to gain by supporting these sorts of laws than they stand to lose. The homosexual community (and the left in general) has essentially thrown Pagans, Heathens, and other minority religions under the bus in the name of supporting gay rights (specifically gay marriage). I’m personally in favor of gay marriage, but not at the expense of my freedom to worship the Gods in the manner of my choosing. Lucius Svartwulf Helson puts it brilliantly:

They [the Gay Commuity] do not care about Pagan Rights. In leading the charge to have major business and other state government boycott states that try to affect a Religious Freedom Law, the GLBT+ community shows not only a complete disregard for any attempt to enshrine into law legal ways to defend and help Paganism obtain its full legal rights, they have shown a completely Fascist attitude to the rights of anyone but themselves, but especially to anyone that identifies themselves as religious. To further this end, Christians (like Memories Pizza) have been repeatedly threaten with real physical harm and the firebombing of their businesses.

(Read the whole thing; it’s terrific.) “Witchery in the Express Lane” makes a similar point, from a slightly different angle:

However it’s been all about the LGBT community and not about people that actually benefit from this law. People like me, a pagan, witch, Hellenist, Heathen and United Stated Citizen. I demand that my religion not be attacked by the federal government and not to be interfered by the federal government. But what really burns me up is that everyone is more concerned about the rights of the LGBT community then about the rights of people who call themselves something that, back then would of gotten you burned alive.

The gay community really seems to be burning a lot of bridges here. Heck, the push to legalize gay marriage in general seems to have just cost them around 34,000 black churches. Folks are finally starting to realize that fighting for their own religious rights is just as important, or even more important, than fighting for the sexuality rights of other people. Especially when the people they’re fighting for suddenly turn on them and attack a law that is designed to, and does, ensure those religious liberties, even though it doesn’t do anything to affect the rights of homosexuals in practice, because they don’t like three of the nineteen people who were present at the signing ceremony.

Meanwhile, homosexuals are being executed – actually killed – by Muslim fanatics in the Middle East, and the pro-gay protesters are silent.

Given a choice between fighting for my real rights, and someone else’s imagined slights, I’ll take my rights every time.

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